Paintings of US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a wall as part of a beautification project ahead of Trump's upcoming visit to Ahemdabad. —Reuters

With no trade deal on the cards, is the Trump visit to India just payback for ‘Howdy Modi’?

With Trump there is always the fear that the US president is more focused on transactional wins.
Published February 21, 2020

US President Donald Trump tends to speak his mind. That mind may change frequently, but he is not one to hide his thoughts behind diplomatic language. So it is worth listening to Trump’s remarks on Tuesday about his upcoming trip to India including a joint appearance at a stadium with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Well, we can have a trade deal with India, but I’m really saving the big deal for later on,” Trump said. “We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot. And he told me we’ll have seven million people between the airport and the event [...] So it’s going to be very exciting.”

For all the ink that will be spilt over the next week about Trump’s India visit, featuring minutiae about negotiations and platitudes about the world’s oldest democracy walking hand-in-hand with the world’s largest, the US president’s words sum up things quite concisely:

No big trade deal. Both sides still unhappy. But Modi has promised Trump a turnout of millions, which excites him.

Seven million people

Trump and Modi will appear jointly in Ahmedabad — a city of fewer than seven million residents as of the last census — to inaugurate a new cricket stadium.

“The stadium, I understand, is sort of semi under construction, but it’s going to be the largest stadium in the world,” Trump said. “[Modi] says between the stadium and the airport, we’ll have about seven million people. So it’s going to be very exciting.”

The venue echoes the Howdy Modi event from 2019 when the two political leaders addressed a crowd of mostly Indian-Americans numbering in the tens of thousands at an arena in Houston, Texas. Then too both leaders got to display their big public personas for the crowds and cameras, even though there was little concrete progress on Indo-US ties.

This time, Trump will get a roadshow from Ahmedabad airport to Motera Stadium on February 24, with a stopover in Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. Trump will then visit the Taj Mahal, before beginning the diplomatic engagements the following day.

Trade worries

The build-up to this visit has had some speed bumps.

Chief among this has been the discussion over trade, the biggest sticking point in the relationship. Over the last two decades, India has successfully built a close defence partnership with the US, which has often hoped to see New Delhi act as a counter to Beijing in the region. Cultural contacts also abound.

But trade has always been a bigger bone of contention. American companies believe they don’t have enough access to the Indian market. Indian politicians fear the push back they would get if American goods and companies put local traders in danger.

Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy has only brought this into sharper focus.

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Biarritz in August. — Reuters
Narendra Modi and Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Biarritz in August. — Reuters

In 2019, the US removed India from the Generalised System of Preferences, which allowed duty-free imports upto a certain volume, prompting retaliatory tariffs from New Delhi. In the past week the US also removed India from its “developing countries” list, making it less likely that GSP benefits would be restored — which had been one of New Delhi’s demands for a trade deal.

US Trade Represent Robert Lighthizer cancelled a trip to India in the weeks before the Trump visit, making it clear that a deal was unlikely. Alice Wells, the US government’s top diplomat overseeing South Asia, said that if a “tiny phase 1 trade deal” cannot be put together, “it would be a big setback.” Wells is not traveling with Trump either.

Strategic partnership

India has indicated that it is willing to offer some concessions to the US, like lower tariffs on heavy motorcycles, imports of chicken legs and even some access to the all-important dairy market, though analysts are sceptical about anything significant. Indeed, just a few weeks before the visit, India’s annual budget included even more tariff increases on products, some of which will impact US producers.

Bigger questions about an impending data protection law that would affect US tech giants and India’s controls on medical products may be tabled for later. As this Council of Foreign Relations’ field guide to US-India trade tensions makes clear, there are many unresolved issues, some of which have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s approach, creating “creating new dilemmas, including a focus on bilateral trade deficits and the application of fresh tariffs, prompting retaliation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.”

From one angle, the willingness of the two leaders to carry out a visit like this despite the lack of movement on trade is a positive thing: It suggests that the US-India relationship is deep enough that it not dependent on a trade breakthrough, allowing the two governments to continue forging a strategic partnership even if the two economies do not integrate further.

“On the strategic end of things, the depth of political comfort has grown exponentially, and we can safely say the relationship enjoys excellent health,” writes Indrani Bagchi in the Times of India. “India is making strategic choices both in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific, sharing security and strategic goals with the US, which is, broken down to its fundamentals, a balancing of Chinese power.”

'Bleed over"

Yet there are fears over this too.

One is concern over Trump’s plan to limit America’s role in enforcing order around the world, even if that leaves chaos in its wake. While Indian public opinion has generally been against American interventionism, worries remain about what the region could look like if the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan.

US President Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2017. — Reuters
US President Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2017. — Reuters

“Delhi’s success with Trump will depend less on the size of the welcome in Ahmedabad and more on the kind of strategic imagination it can display on trade cooperation, securing Afghanistan after America’s withdrawal, stabilising the Gulf and developing a new global compact on migration that is sensitive to domestic political considerations and yet contributes to the collective economic development,” writes C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express.

The other is the worry that the trade battles can spill over into other parts of the relationship. Already politicians in America have brought up concerns about the Modi government’s trampling of civil rights in Kashmir and the religiously discriminatory Citizenship Act amendments.

Though the administration has stayed away from these matters, American legislators from both sides of the political divide have been vocal, which according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Richard Rossow raises risks of those concerns having an effect on the strategic relationship.

“I am very concerned about the bleed over, and I think we already see it to a larger extent on Capitol Hill,” Rossow said recently. “A little bit less in the administration, but we’ll see how long they can kind of hold off those types of pressures. But it’s a real concern of mine.”

Transactional Trump

With Trump there is always the fear that the US president is more focused on transactional wins — like winning economic concessions from allies — and is willing to endanger other aspects of the relationship to get there. Hosting an event like the big roadshow and stadium visit is part of the effort to keep Trump happy.

“At issue is that, while a closer strategic relationship with India is a US goal, it’s not clear that it’s an objective Trump shares, beyond his high-profile glad-handing with Modi,” writes Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy. “Ultimately, during the trade talks and Trump’s visit, both Indian and US officials share a similar goal: mollify Trump with small symbolic moves on issues like dairy access in order to avoid an unpredictable, potentially catastrophic decision.”

The two countries may still manage to hammer out some sort of deal on trade in New Delhi next week, even as other aspects of the relationship move forward. But few are expecting big surprises, other than a stray Trump comment or two.

As former diplomat Rakesh Sood put it, speaking to the Print, “ultimately, the success of Trump’s visit will be gauged by the Twitter storm that it generates.”

This article originally appeared at and has been reproduced with permission.